James 5:16b …The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
If I were to take a poll of everyone in this room concerning your prayer lives, what do you think I’d find? On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being almost non-existent and 10 being practically Jesus), what do you think the average prayer-health score would be? How many of you regularly close your eyes at the end of the day thinking, “My prayer life is pretty much exactly as God intends it to be”?
From having spoken to many of you on this subject, my guess is that the average score would be between 5-6. The main reasons I’ve heard are the lack of consistency, the lack of a plan, the lack of a sense of God’s presence, and the lack of understanding of exactly how prayer works. Our passage in James doesn’t address and can’t fix all of that, but if you will receive it in faith, you will find a good deal of help in strengthening your prayer life.
In the second half of James 5:16, James wrote, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” That is such a significant promise that I thought it was worth entire sermon. There are few things more significant and mysterious in the Christian life than prayer. It is significant because it is at the very heart of our purpose for living and because God uses it to accomplish things that wouldn’t otherwise happen. And prayer is mysterious because it doesn’t seem logically compatible with certain, central aspects of God’s nature or ours.
After considering the significance and mystery of prayer, then, it is my hope that we’ll be in a better position to understand James’s specific teaching on prayer in this passage and the actual practice of prayer in our own lives.
The main point of all of this is that God has given prayer to His people as a means of communing with Him and as a means of accomplishing His purposes in the world. Therefore, God’s people pray. Let’s pray that through this text and sermon God would help us to pray.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PRAYER
There are few things more significant in the Christian life than prayer. I invite you to consider its significance from two angles. First, we’ll do so by taking a brief (but fairly thorough) flyover of prayer in the Bible. And second, we’ll consider its significance by looking more closely at two awesome aspects of prayer.
Prayer in the Bible
The first place prayer is explicitly mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 20. In their sojourning, Abraham and his wife Sarah, came to an area called Gerar. There they lied about their relationship (telling the Gerarites that they were brother and sister rather than husband and wife) to protect Abraham’s life. Consequently, Abimelech, king of Gerar, took Sarah into his home with the intention of marrying her. To protect this couple and the covenant He’d made with them, God intervened, threatening Abimelech’s life if he did not return Sarah to Abraham. God’s final words to Abimelech were, “Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live” (Genesis 20:7).
From there, prayer is explicitly mentioned over 300 times, in most books of the Bible, in each testament and genre, and in most of the key figures among God’s people.
In Genesis 25, Isaac prayed for his wife Rebekah because she could not bear children. And in 1 Samuel 1:10 we read that Hannah prayed in deep distress and with bitter tears because her womb was closed. God answered both.
In Numbers 21:7 we read of God’s judgment having come upon Israel for their grumbling. Their response was to call on Moses to pray to the LORD on their behalf that He might relent. This is similar to the Genesis 20 passage, along with many, many other passages in the Bible, in that the heart of the prayer was a request for God to turn back His judgment for sin.
There is a remarkable prayer for God’s wisdom in Judges 13:8.
In 2 Samuel 7:27 we find David praying another common prayer in the Bible. God had made a covenant with him to provide land, victory over enemies, and an everlasting throne. David’s response was one of prayerful, hopeful thanksgiving. Likewise, Hezekiah prayed a prayer of exuberant praise in response to the LORD’s faithfulness in 2 Chronicles 30:18.
In 1 Kings 8, Solomon prayed for God’s continual and favorable presence among His people.
Elijah prayed and rain stopped for three and half years (1 Kings 18).
In 2 Kings Elisha prayed to the LORD and the LORD raised a child from the dead! The same thing happened when Peter prayed for Dorcas (Acts 9:40) and Paul prayed for Eutychus (Acts 20:9).
In 1 Kings 13:6 we find a payer for healing. This is made even more clear in passages like the one we considered last week in James 5:13 and 14. In Isaiah 38, the LORD added 15 years to Hezekiah’s life because he humbly prayed to God in his sickness. And in a similar way, God healed the father of Publius of dysentery when Paul prayed for him (Acts 28:8).
In 2 Kings 6:17, God granted spiritual sight to Elisha’s servant because of Elisha’s prayers.
Solomon also prayed, asking God to be gracious to sinners whenever they repent (which God promises to do in 2 Chronicles 7:14). We see this as well throughout the NT in passages like Acts 8:22
The LORD returned all that Job had lost and more when he prayed (Job 42:10).
In Psalm 5:2, David prayed for God’s mercy in the midst of his enemies gaining ground in their wickedness.
In Psalm 114:2 David prayed to God because he knew God always listened to his prayers.
David prayed for peace for the people of God in Psalm 121:6.
Wicked people futilely prayed to false gods in Isaiah 44:17. Isaiah promised that the prayer of a wicked man will not be heard (Isaiah 16:12). Similarly, God repeatedly prohibited Jeremiah from praying for the Israelites because they refused to repent (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11).
Jesus commanded His followers to pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:44), to pray simply, in secret, and not to impress people (Matthew 6:5), to avoid praying as if it were about informing God (Matthew 6:8), to pray to the Father for more people to proclaim the good news (Matthew 9:38), and to pray to avoid temptation to sin (Luke 22:40). He also taught on the importance of prayer by regularly slipping away to pray (Matthew 14:23, 26:36; Mark 1:35, 6:46, 14:32; Luke 5:16, 6:12, 9:28) and that the Father really does work through faithful prayer (Mark 11:25).
Judas’s replacement among the disciples was chosen through prayer (Acts 1:24).
The first deacons were chosen and then commissioned through prayer (Acts 6:6). So too were the first NT missionaries (Acts 13:3, 21:5) and pastors (2 Timothy 1:6).
After Jesus’ resurrection, His disciples followed His example by withdrawing to pray (Peter in Acts 10:9, Paul in Colossians 1:3).
Paul helps us understand that because God and His ways are far above us, we really don’t know how to pray, but we should do it anyway in the knowledge that the Spirit will help us (Romans 8:26-27).
In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul tells us that there are certain postures and dispositions that are more proper for prayer.
We find Christians in one area (Corinth) praying earnestly for Christians in another (Jerusalem) in 2 Corinthians 9:14 (Colossians 1:3, 9) as well as Christians in one area soliciting the prayers of Christians in another (Colossians 4:3, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Hebrews 13:18).
Our prayers ought to be earnest (1 Thessalonians 3:10) and without ceasing (Acts 10:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Our prayers for one another are ultimately meant to end in the glory of God in the maturing of the saints (2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the salvation of the lost (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
We are supposed to pray for our governing authorities (1 Timothy 2:1).
Men (1 Timothy 2:8) and widows (1 Timothy 5:5) have special charges to pray for God’s people.
God’s people constantly prayed that their evangelistic plans would succeed (Philemon 1:22).
Failing to show understanding, honor, and tenderness toward their wives, hinders husbands’ prayers (1 Peter 3:7).
It is good to pray for both physical and spiritual health and healing (3 John 1:2).
And probably the most important passage on prayer is found in Matthew 6:9-13 where Jesus taught His disciples to pray what we call the Lord’s Prayer.
The Bible mentions people praying while standing, kneeling, on the ground, laying hands on, and even laying on top of people. They prayed in the mind and in the spirit. They prayed while awake and in dreams. Prayers were offered at all times of day and night. God’s people prayed in great joy, sadness, fear, guilt, innocence, relief, hope and doubt. People prayed by themselves and in large and small groups. They prayed for friends, enemies, and strangers. They prayed for people and things present and future.
Though far from exhaustive, in all of this we have a fair sampling of the Bible’s teaching on prayer. Combined, we find prayer commanded and modeled everywhere in the Bible. The vast quantity, universal practice, and amazing works of God that happened through prayer in the Bible speak loudly to its significance in the life of God’s people. And from there, we can easily see the second angle of prayer’s significance as well—its place in the heart and work of God.
Prayer in the Heart and Work of God
The most significant significance of prayer is that it is at the very heart of our purpose for living and God uses it to accomplish things that wouldn’t otherwise happen.
- Prayer is a key aspect of the purpose of our lives. Grace, we were made for fellowship with God, and in prayer we get a real taste of that. Prayer is talking to God in the knowledge that He is present to hear, that He lovingly cares, that He truly is responsible for the governance of the world, and that He answers us every time. In other words, prayer is a key piece of our communion with God, which is the very reason for our existence. Indeed, the great promise of heaven is that we will see God “face to face” and “know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12)—and our prayers today are a kind of firstfruits of that level of fellowship. Again, Grace, to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength is to long to be with Him and to experience His presence continually. Prayer gives us unlimited access to this.
- God uses prayer to accomplish things that otherwise wouldn’t happen. In the different examples of prayer in the Bible that I gave a few moments ago, God opened wombs that would have remained closed, healed sicknesses that would have lingered, restored life that would have been lost, relented in punishment that would have continued, provided wisdom where there would have been ongoing folly, stopped rain where there would have been precipitation, granted sight where blindness would have persisted, brought peace out of perpetual war, made ministries fruitful when there would have been failure, humbled kings where there would have been nothing but pride, and saved sinners and granted repentance where there would have been nothing but death and rebellion.
In John 14:13-14 Jesus promised His followers, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
Picking up on this, John wrote, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15).
And of course, in our passage for this morning, James wrote, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Passages like these (and there are many more) teach us that prayer is significant in that God used the prayers of the faithful to accomplish thing that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
Prayer is significant. We see its significance in that it is everywhere in the Bible—commanded and modeled. It is also significant in that it is at its very core, fellowship with God—the purpose of our lives. And finally, prayer is significant in that God uses it to accomplish things that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
My hope in sharing all of that with you is that it will help you consider carefully what the Bible really does say about prayer so that you will pray in a manner pleasing to God. Then end goal, once again, is that we’d all grow this morning to pray as God means us to. Let’s turn our attention now to the mystery of prayer.
THE MYSTERY OF PRAYER
The Bible repeatedly teaches that God means His people to pray. Indeed, as we’ve seen, He commands His people to pray. Those things couldn’t be any clearer. Likewise, it is clear in the Bible that prayer fits perfectly with certain aspects of who God is and who we are. Praying to God makes total sense in light of the fact that God is omnipresent (He is always with us to hear our prayers), omnipotent (He is fully able to answer every prayer), omniscient (He perfectly knows the best answer to every prayer), loving (He delights in hearing our prayers), good (His answers to prayer will always be best), and kind (He is patient when we are foolish). And the fact that we are sinful, needy, weak, ignorant, dependent, and vulnerable means that prayer is the most reasonable thing we can do.
In particular, the kinds of prayers that confess sin and acknowledge the unmatched glory of God fit perfectly with God’s nature and ours. So too do the kinds of prayers that give thanks to God for His marvelous works.
At the same time, however, there are other aspects of God’s nature and ours that make certain kinds of prayers and the way God uses them truly mysterious. I’m talking specifically about prayers that ask God to change the course of events; the kind of prayers that we just considered whereby God uses them to accomplish things that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
What is it about God’s nature and ours that seems incompatible with this kind of prayer?
On our end, it’s the exact aspects of our nature that I listed above. The fact that we are as fallen and limited and ignorant as we are means that asking for anything in the universe to change is in a very real way, absurd. To ask a two-year-old to serve as chief planner and navigator on a family road trip is a million times more reasonable than to ask God to adjust anything on account of our selfish, fallen, and short-sighted desires or perspective.
The Bible highlights this in passages like Romans 9:20. To the one who questions the manner in which God saves sinners Paul wrote, “… who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”
We see this in a far more thorough and dramatic way in God’s questioning of Job (38:16-41),
Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? 17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? 18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. 19 “Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, 20 that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home… 22 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, 23 which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? 24 What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth? 25 “Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, 26 to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man, 27 to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass? 28 “Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew? 29 From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the frost of heaven? … 31 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? 32 Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? 33 Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? 34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you? 35 Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? 36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind? 37 Who can number the clouds by wisdom? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, 38 when the dust runs into a mass and the clods stick fast together? 39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 40 when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in their thicket? 41 Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?
The point, of course, is that we know nothing compared to God. Our greatest wisdom is God’s folly. So, what sense does it make for us to ask God to do anything based on our understanding of things?
Even more to the point, though, is the mystery surrounding this kind of prayer and God’s nature. Where the passage in Job I just read points to the severe limits of the knowledge and power of man, where every man’s answer to every question is no, it also points to the unimaginable wisdom and might of God, where His answer to every question is YES!
God is God. That is, God is king over all. That is, God rules over every aspect of His creation. Rooted in His very essence is the fact that God leaves nothing in the universe up to chance. And there is nothing that happens outside of God eternal, good purposes. God is filled with all wisdom and knowledge. His purposes are sure. His promises are certain. He does not change His mind. His every way is perfect.
In Ephesians 1:11, Paul describes God as one who ” works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.”
In light of who God is and who we are, how does it make sense for us to ask God to change anything in the universe? And in light of how God works to govern the universe, what good do our prayers do? Again, prayer is significant, but it is also mysterious. What are we to make of that? Two simple things.
First, like children, we are to trust God. The Bible is filled with mysteries like this. But given who God is and who we are, how could it not be? How could God be as high as He is and us as corrupted by the fall as we are and there not by mystery? The simple fact is that we do not understand how prayers of supplication work. God commands His people, ” in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6), and so we obey in faith. The Bible says that it is good for us to make our requests known and so we do. The Bible says that this brings joy to God and so we do. The Bible says that God uses them to change things and so we do.
And second, this is only true for those who are in Christ. It is because Jesus goes before us and therefore the Spirit lives in us that God accepts our prayers and works through them. Apart from Jesus, we have no hope that God will hear us. Apart from Jesus, we have no prayer-merit at all. Apart from Jesus we have no access to God. Apart from Jesus, we are God’s enemies. In Christ, however, we are children of God, and God loves to hear from His children and respond in blessing.
The heart of prayers of supplication is a simple trust that in Jesus, God invites and even commands His people to pray them and so we do.
THE POWER OF THE RIGHTEOUS PRAYER
All of that brings us to the specific statement made by James, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” I hope it’s easy for you to see that there is nothing new in these words. All of them are wrapped up in what we’ve already covered.
God does great things through the prayers of those who have the righteousness of Jesus, and so we pray when we are suffering, cheerful, and sick. We pray when we are lonely, excited, and well. We pray when we want God to grant relief, sustain our gladness, heal our sickness, meet us in our pain, commune with us in our loneliness, fill us with the knowledge of His presence, save our unbelieving child or neighbor, change our appetites, mortify our flesh, provide what we need to care well for the people of Grace Church, strengthen our missionaries, comfort our mourners, fight for justice, humble our leaders, hold back our enemies, and every other request we have.
We pray in these ways not because we understand perfectly how they fit with our nature and God’s, not because we know what God will do with them, and not because we want to override God’s perfect plans, but because God commands us to, because God promises that for all who hope in Jesus, there is great power in them, and because by doing so we are taking part in fullness of life in fellowship with God.
THE PRACTICE OF PRAYER
In conclusion There will always be mystery surrounding prayer, but we are to pray in faith anyway. Specifically, and finally, we are to…
- Pray biblically. That is, we are to pray as the Bible calls us to. In fact, we are to pray the Bible. Your main prayer-practice ought to be to read your Bible and respond to it in prayer. The Bible is God’s Word to us. Prayer is our response back to Him. Modeling this is part of why we pray through a passage of Scripture each week in the beginning of the service.
- Pray personally. As I’ve mentioned, pray in the knowledge that God is with you when you do. Pray knowing that God is eager to hear in the same way (and more) that you are glad when your children come to you on your best days. You are praying to a real person who loves you more than you’ll ever realize and cares more for your situation than you ever will.
- Pray expectantly. Our passage in James teaches this. We ought to pray expecting God’s power to be unleashed through our prayers. Earlier, James expounded by commanding us to pray and not doubt like double-minded people do. The expectation isn’t that God will do exactly what we ask, but that He’ll make His power and presence to bless known whenever we pray.
- Pray constantly. Prayer ought to be our native tongue. While we’re driving, walking, with friends, at church, at kid’s sporting events, watching TV, when we wake up and when we lie down. We ought always talk to God in adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. As you notice something right or wrong, praiseworthy or broken, ordinary or miraculous, tell it to God and ask Him to work in it.
- Pray systematically. While most of our prayers will be spontaneous, it is good and right to ask consistently and systematically for the things we are most charged to care for—your own soul, the health of your family, Grace Church and our leaders, our missionaries, our neighbors, our unbelieving family, etc. Have a prayer journal. Check back on it and update it often.
- Pray corporately. Pray with others. Let your best relationships and friendships be marked by praying together for God’s will to be done. Share your burdens and carry those of one another in prayer. Share stories of God’s faithfulness.
Let’s close by praying together the prayer our Lord taught us to pray.
Matthew 6:9b-13 “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”